The Quarantined Canuck

We’ve been back in China for over a week now, and although our quarantine is now technically over, we are still spending most of our time at home. Most things are still closed, so we haven’t had much choice. I thought you may all be wondering what it’s like back in Suzhou at the moment, so a quick update is in order.

Just finished my 3rd novel since we got back. Nothing like a little perspective to remind me that this whole “virus thing” really isn’t that bad….

The Trip Back to China

Our flight back to China was fairly uneventful. We put on our masks, and tried to get a bit of sleep. We landed at around 9:30 at Pudong airport, and that’s when we started seeing the differences in this country we’ve made our home…

Waiting for our flight in Kuala Lumpur

Pudong was remarkably empty. Even at 9:30, it’s usually a very busy place. We made it through customs quickly and got our luggage in record time. The emptiness wasn’t the strangest thing though… The hazmat suits are what unnerved me.

Nothing like getting off a plane and being greeted by people in space suits

All over the airport, there were people taking temperatures, wearing heavy-duty masks and full on plastic suits ranging from ‘that kinda looks like a trash bag’ to ‘whoa, that guy’s wearing a hazmat suit’. It felt like a scene from the movies. Still, we moved through without issue.

My temperature was probably taken about 10 times throughout that Malaysia to China travel experience

Suzhou has a population of about 8 million people, but no airport, so our journey wasn’t over once we cleared customs. At the moment there are 3 options to get back to Suzhou from Pudong Airport….(I’ve been told now that there are more options, but these are the ones I knew about at time of writing)

Not all options are equal…

Option 1: Take the long distance bus from Pudong airport to central SIP. This option always leaves me extremely car sick, and it takes hours to get back home. It’s cheap, but time consuming. I hate this option the most.

The last time we took the bus, I had a full on breakdown at the bus terminal because someone had smeared poo all over the walls in the women’s bathroom. It’s not the most welcoming way to return to the country…I sat there and cried until the bus came (needed to pee…got very little sleep on the plane….so much poo……)

Option 2: Take a high speed train to Suzhou. This option SEEMS simple, but in reality, it can end up being more expensive than option #3, which I’ll get to in a minute. First, you need to go from Pudong airport, to the train station. There’s no direct way to do this without taking a very overpriced taxi (200rmb, just to get to the station…and that’s if you don’ t get ripped off). Then, you have to deal with the train station, which is smelly, smokey, crowded and dirty.

This is the “nice” railway station in Shanghai. The one we take has half as many seats, twice as many people and smells like la tiao (spicy tofu) It’s basically the worst smell in the world. Just a bad as poo…)

Option 3: Hire a driver. This option has been our go-to for the last 3 years now, and we won’t be switching back any time soon. It costs about 350rmb (about $70 Canadian), but is highly convenient, fast and actually often ends up being cheaper than Option #2 in the end. During this coronavirus period, there was no question…we hired the car.

They show up with your name on a paper. Dave’s Wechat name is “D’Rhymes”….

At this point, we usually walk past 100 illegal taxi drivers all trying to take us for a ride (literally and figuratively), and track down our guy… This year was easier though, because the illegal drivers were nowhere in sight! Still, I was nervous about the drive back to beautiful Suzhou…

Shanghai to Suzhou

Now, usually, getting back into Suzhou is simple. You stop at a few toll booths, but that’s it. Of course, this isn’t a typical year…

Nope. Not typical…

We’ve been following the news closely and I’ve been getting updates from various sources, including my school and friends who had already returned to Suzhou. It seemed like everyone gave us a different set of things we would need on that trip back, but we had no idea which ones were important and which ones weren’t. Here’s a list of some of the things we were told we would need:

  • Our rental contract & residency permits
  • An arrival form with the licence plate of the car we would be taking into the city (this was suppose to be done before we got back to China but our driver wouldn’t give us his licence plate number, making it impossible)
  • A health code (which we couldn’t get because the only two options you could choose were “I’ve been in Suzhou for two weeks” or “I’ve been in a different Chinese city for 2 weeks”… Neither of which were true..
  • A different code that we couldn’t get because we don’t have Chinese IDs cards
  • A signature or the presence of our landlord to get back into our compound.

Here’s a list of what we actually needed:

  • A bit of bare skin so that they could take our temperatures.
Whoever makes these little temperature guns is making a killing at the moment. I’ve had at least 2 of these things pointed at my head every day since we returned

Our First Week Back

We were thrilled to see our cats, and they were thrilled to see us. It was nice sleeping in our own bed once more. We were gone for 37 days total, and in a lot of ways, we were happy our travels were over.

My sweet Ollie is still stuck to me like glue

Life’s been a bit strange in Suzhou. We were technically supposed to be under quarantine for a week upon our return, but we were allowed to go out and get groceries or to pick up food, as long as we wore masks.

One of the entrances to our compound has been boarded up so that everyone goes through 1 gate.

Most restaurants are still closed for dining, and are only doing take out. The few restaurants that ARE open for dining still have to close by 7pm, and being the late eaters that we are, we’ve ended up missing our window a couple of times now.

We have had to resort to fast food more than once. Even there though, you can’t dine in. In fact, you can’t even walk in… They take your order at the door and you take it home to eat.

Cooking at home is just not really something we’ve done much in China, simply because the groceries we want are hard to find and really overpriced, so for the past 6 years, we’ve go out for lunch and dinner pretty much every day. Of course, the virus has changed all that, and our fridge is now actually stocked with more than just coffee creamer and a few bottles of hot sauce.

We were annoyed when we had to pay the equivalent of $15 Canadian for a 1 liter of cream… Dairy is expensive in this country!

Online purchases are making their way to us now, slowly but surely. Delivery drivers can’t actually drive into our compound though, so we need to walk out to the front to get anything that’s brought in (including jugs of water for our water dispenser).

They’ve put plastic wrap over all the buttons in the elevators. I have no idea what that is supposed to do because people have to touch it anyway. I’ve taken to hitting the button for our floor with my elbow to avoid it

You have to wear a mask if you go outside, which makes sense to me. I know they don’t really help prevent you from getting sick…but they DO help prevent people from spreading their germs in the first place. The way I see it: if I have to wear a mask, that means the sick people need to as well. It makes me feel safer.

It keeps my face warm!

We’re being very diligent about washing our hands, washing our phones, washing down tables we sit at, and just basically not touching anything. I walk around with both hands in my pockets and I don’t take off my gloves unless I need to.

We’re starting to see more people out and about now but everything is still closing down early. This was the shopping mall near our apartment earlier this week. It’s usually full of people.

As of this week, a few restaurants have opened back up for dine-in, but with strange restrictions like ‘there must be 1.5 meters between each customer’ and ‘only 1 person can sit at each table’. Dave and I went out for dumplings for lunch yesterday and were suppose to sit at two separate tables. Of course, foreigners can kinda get away with ignoring some of the rules, so we sat down at a double table and sat beside each other instead of across from each other, and nobody said anything.

Tables only have 1 chair at them in any restaurant that is open. In order to have more people than that at a table, restaurants need to be given special permission from the government. To get that permission, they need to follow a whole lot of rules, like properly cleaning things, and wearing gloves if you’re handling food… Basically, they just need to have proper standards of cleanliness
I’ve been smelling actual cleaners being used since we returned! It took me a second to realize why our apartment building smelled different the other day… Then I realized: they’re using more than just water to clean the floors!! Hallelujah!!!

Getting into a Routine

For now, we’re continuing to try and stay in a routine. I teach online Monday-Friday, and that keeps me busy. We’ve been cooking most of our meals at home (which has been really nice!), and doing a lot of reading in my free time. I’ve finished 3 novels now in the past 8 days, and I’ve been slowly working my way through our photos so that I can finish up my last few blog posts. Life has been slower, calmer and more relaxed, which honestly has been a really good thing.

Hugo likes to curl up on me while I read

Teachers across China are still waiting for schools to re-open. It seems ridiculous now that my boss thought we’d be back in classes by February 17th, when in reality, we’ll be happy to be back before the end of March. For my own students, online learning has been okay. SIPFLS has done a good job of keeping students accountable and giving us tools we can work with. I have friends who are working with awful systems and whose students aren’t doing any of the work, making teaching an even more difficult task.

I teach lessons using a program called Zoom. I can upload files for them to see, share my screen and we use video and audio for class discussions. Not quite the same as a conventional classroom, but not too bad either!

I have a few posts left for Langkawi, including one about the island’s wildlife, and also one for the eco-tourism offered on the island. Malaysia has become a very high contender for the next country where we will live. Our experiences there were great, and I can’t help but wish I were back there right now…

We haven’t seen blue skies since we got back. I miss Malaysia so much!!!

Waiting Out Coronovirus

At this point, I’m no longer on holiday. We’re still in Langkawi and I’m still not physically teaching classes, but I’m still back at work in a sense. The wonders of the internet have allowed me to teach remotely.

My poor students have had to put up with my awkward video lessons

This Strange Holiday

We were originally supposed to be back at work as of Feb 10th, but that was extended to Feb 17th in an effort to keep the virus from spreading further. The government also requested that people avoid flying into China unnecessarily, so we changed our flights to February 15. It wasn’t an issue. Most flight companies are kindly offering refunds on flights to China throughout the virus.

Many airlines have cancelled all flights to and from China until March at this point

Just last week though, the government decided that February 17th was still too early to reopen schools and has now declared that schools should not open before the end of February. This time, they didn’t give us an estimated return date.

We knew we wouldn’t be back in February. That’s all we knew

Shortly after the announcement was made, our February 15th flights were cancelled by Air Asia, and the company announced that they were suspending all flights back to China until March.

Schools React

This is where things have gotten a bit ugly for a lot of the teachers in China. Many foreigners have decided to move home due to the virus, breaking contracts and leaving their schools and students in the lurch. On the other hand, I’ve heard of many schools demanding that their employees come into the school to do “paperwork” until the schools reopen

I couldn’t find an appropriate meme, so I made one…

In some cases, schools have tried deducting wages or flat out telling their staff that they aren’t getting paid for February. Now, this might make sense if teachers aren’t doing online classes or producing online material for their students, but some schools have gone so far as to demand these materials but to also claim they won’t be paying their staff.

Once more…I put Pic Collage to good use…

Our Situation

I’ve been very lucky. My school administration has asked me to work during this shut down period but they’re making sure to track our work to guarantee that we will be paid for it. I think this is the best way to go about all this (for middle School and high school anyway) because at the end of the day, students still need to pass their final tests to get into good highschool’s and universities, and honestly… As crazy as all this has been… Life can’t just stop.

Those tests won’t write themselves!

Of course, life isn’t normal either. We are safer in Malaysia for the time being so this is where we’re staying. Suzhou has over 80 cases now, but the virus does seem to be slowing down. Every day we check the news to see what the new numbers of sick, dead and recovered patients.

We’re happy to be seeing much lower numbers these days. We live in SIP. It’s finally starting to disappear.

Dave and I have been incredibly fortunate in many ways. We’re in a safe and beautiful country (Malaysia) where money goes a long way and the internet is good. I work for a good school that is treating us well. We also have a cat sitter who is visiting our pets every day and an apartment complex that allows her to go in and out. We’ve been on the lucky side of things in a lot of different ways.

The world’s greatest cat sitter right here! This is how she dresses up daily to come visit our kitties

Facing Challenges

Still, it’s been hard. The most difficult part for me has been to remain positive for the sake of others. A lot of people are really scared. A lot of our friends are back in China, and some of them are immunocompromised, and less likely to survive should they catch coronavirus. We have friends from Wuhan, whose family members are sick, and who can’t go home. We have friends whose parents are doctors, working around the clock and putting themselves at risk. A lot of medical personal have caught the virus and have died from it. Scarier yet, a doctor passed away last week from sheer exhaustion. He was only 28, and he died of heart failure after working hour after hour, day after day, trying to save lives.

Doctors from all over China are being sent to Hubei province to help with the outbreak. Many of them have gotten sick and even died

I am a community leader in the suzhou expat circles, managing multiple Wechat groups, with up to 500 people in each. These forums are invaluable resources for people living in China, and they’re how we stay in touch with other Canadians, teachers and how we get advice on everything from where to eat to how to renew your passport if it expires while you’re abroad.

Some of the groups I run.

I run several communities regarding animal rescue, which has really been a big job through all of this. There have been so many rumours spread about the virus… Some people claim the virus was bio warfare. Others claim that it was a leaked virus from a lab. The one that has been personally quite difficult for me has been the idea that pets can transmit the disease and get their owners sick.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about already…

The day that rumour began, pets all over China were killed. Their terrified and misinformed owners threw them off balconies and poisoned them. One woman came down with coronavirus and while she was in the hospital, someone broke into her home and killed her cat out of fear. People began to fear that their pets would be killed in all of this. To make matters worse, British tabloids tried saying that the government was telling people that if they didn’t kill their pets, the government would. It was all nonsense… But just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it won’t be shared and that it won’t spread like wildfire.

You wouldn’t believe the amount of misinformation I’ve seen…

Life Back in China

People out west don’t seem to really know what’s all going on. They imagine people dying in the streets and a callous government who doesn’t care if its citizens die. None of it really captures life in China at the moment.

This is Wuhan right now. These streets are usually full. China is never this quiet…

In reality, people are going stir crazy in their apartments, quarantined for safety measures. It’s difficult to get supplies at the moment because delivery companies are shut down. Finding masks and hand sanitizer has been difficult. Items like pet food and food with long shelf life is harder to find. People fill shopping carts with cheap ramen and canned goods ‘just in case’. There is limited fresh food and it runs out daily.

In Suzhou it’s been better, but most grocery stores have empty produce shelves by the end of the day.

Most public venues are still shut down and many restaurants are doing take away orders only. Some restaurants have a strict 3 person limit at each table, in an attempt to reduce crowds from forming. Malls, vets and grocery stores all have reduced hours and many apartment complexes even have curfews. In other cities, people are only allowed leaving their apartments once every few days, so really, Suzhou doesn’t even have it that bad.

People are having their temperature scanned before they can get into their own appartment complexes

Teachers and students are both struggling with online classes in a country with very closed off internet access. Students still have exams to pass but are mentally checked out, which I completely understand. No one is sure when schools will reopen in Jiangsu province, where we live. Shanghai has announced that schools will be online only through March, but each province is coming up with their own rules.

It turns out teaching in your pajamas isn’t all fun and games… Especially when you’re dealing with the great firewall of China…

Wuhan and is still overwhelmed with the sick, and short on supplies and medical workers. People are still dying every day, but the number of new deaths is starting to go down, which is a good sign. The number of recovered patients is also on the rise. Soon, we hope the latter will be the bigger number in our daily updates.

Even with 2 new hospitals being built in under 2 weeks and several public buildings being turned into care centers, it’s simply not enough… People are still left untreated in Wuhan.

We’re set to go home on February 24th. I miss my cats so much, and Poe has been quite sick, with an interestinal infection, so I’ve been extra worried about her. I also miss my friends and the comfort of my own bed. I miss normalcy.

My sweet girl

Change is in the Air

I think things are going to change in China, after all this calms down. Ideally, wet markets will become a lot more strictly run to avoid outbreaks like this from beginning in the future. I hope that the government will start taking measures to teach the general population about unsanitary practices like spitting, and force companies to put soap in all bathrooms. I also think the Chinese people trust their government a little less after all this.

Wet markets are a bad idea all around. Having love animals, uncooked (and often unrefrigerated) meat lying around alongside produce… It’s a recipe for disaster

I’m not sure if anything will change, but I know that this whole experience has changed me. Being in Langkawi had reminded me how much I miss being around nature and how much I miss having work/life balance. In China, all we really do is work, but here, we spend our free time animal watching, cruising around on our motorbike or even just swimming in our guesthouse pool. I don’t think I’d ever have time for any of that working in a country with such an intense work culture.

Being surrounded by so much green has really made me miss having nature to enjoy

Coronavirus has forced me to slow down and it’s been a good change. I’m not sure what’s in store for us in the coming few years but I can say with certainty that although life in China has been amazing… This chapter in our life is coming to an end. Before long, we’ll be onto a new adventure. We aren’t sure what that will involve yet, but I’m sure it will be grand.

There is so much more of the world to see! We really do live on a beautiful planet!

So there you have it. This is our life at the moment. Hopefully we’ll be back home on the 24th, to cuddle up with our kitties and get back into our routines.

We’re pretty sure at this point that Hugo prefers the cat sitter.
At least Oliver still loves me!!!

I still have a few posts left to write about Langkawi! They’ll be up soon!

Sneak peak: one of my posts will be all about wildlife!

CNY 2020 – Day 12 – Airports & Coronovirus

Airports are a bit scary at the moment. They’re where you are most likely to run into someone with Coronovirus, and airplanes circulate the same air throughout the flight, and you notice everyone that is coughing, sneezing or sniffling as you get into the plane. You’re breathing their sniffles for the flight. Fun fact.

Fun with surgical masks!
Did he just sneeze???
Why didn’t he cover his mouth!!!!!????

We left the jungle early to make sure we’d make it to the airport in time, so I decided to do a bit of walking around to try and find some back up masks and extra hand sanitizer (we are meeting up with a friend in Lankowi who needs them too because she, like so many others, hasn’t been able to locate any). Unfortunately all I saw was this:

I saw this everywhere…..

Shelves were completely empty of anything that disinfects…

These were 4 different types of sanitizer. All gone.
Dettol wipes: sold out
Hand sanitizer: sold out
Everything else was in stock, but anything involving sanitization is gone

I did manage to find some vitamin C and some hand wipes in the end, but I think I basically bought the last hand wipes in the entire airport.

We have plenty of this stuff back in Suzhou too.

Back in China, the government has began fining anyone who is trying to overcharge for these basic essentials during this outbreak. One man in Beijing is being fined 3 million RMB for this crime.

The guy in Beijing isn’t the only one to try this either….

Once in Lankawi, we found a big bottle of hand sanitizer for both us and my friend. We also stocked up on arrival masks in a small town outside KL (where people aren’t as worried and the masks are easier to find).

500ml should last us a while.

Over all, even with The Who declaring a global state of emergency (several hours after saying it WASN’T a global emergency….) I’m still not in panic mode.

Statistics like this keep me calm

Still, things are still uncertain for us on this side of the world. When we left China, we had no idea that we might not be coming back as planned. We packed what we needed for our 19 days of travel, and we packed light. We have 3 cats at home who are being cared for, but it’s scary knowing that our cat sitter could be banned from entering the complex at any point. As it is, many apartment complexes won’t allow anyone in until they have been tested for fevers. That’s the lengths cities are going to to try and prevent this virus from spreading further.

This sign was posted outside a friend’s apartment complex. Basically if you don’t live in that complex, you’re not allowed in.

So, we’ll continue with the “wait and see” approach and hope that it’ll all turn out fine. At least we got ahold of some masks, sanitizer and vitamin C.

CNY 2020 – Day 7 – Coronovirus

I don’t think it’s possible for me to write about this holiday and not discuss what’s going on back “home” in China. The Coronovirus outbreak has been a very large part of our lives throughout this entire trip. When we aren’t reading up on news ourselves, we’re in contact with people back in Suzhou who didn’t go on holiday. It’s been kind of wild.

China is in the midst of building a hospital… In 6 days. There are actually 2 of these being built because most likely, a lot more people are going to be getting sick

The virus started in Wuhan, in a wet market. People there were selling exotic meats like bat and civet, and that’s how the virus began. We had been hearing about the pneumonia-causing illness in December already, but it wasn’t actually until we got to Malaysia that things got bad. First the market in Wuhan was closed, then the city shut down. Then, several others shut down too.

Ground 0 for the Wuhan Coronovirus

We live in Suzhou, which is about 300km from the city of Wuhan. There have been only 8 cases in Suzhou and no deaths, as of now. One of the infected Suzhou residents was even cured! Still, people are very nervous about it all.

I’ve never been to Hubei province, although it’s pretty close via high speed train

Watching this go down from so far away is kind of surreal. I keep seeing photos of empty grocery store shelves and I keep getting notices of all the venues and events that are shutting down because of the virus. Everyone has basically been told to stay home. People are going stir crazy.

It’s worse in Wuhan, where the city is in complete lock down. Roads have been physically closed to stop people from getting out. Unfortunately, 5 million people left Wuhan before officials realized that this virus is so contagious. This is why it’s spread so far throughout China.

We don’t really know when we’re going to be able to go back. Our three cats are being cared for by our usual pet sitter, and we’re ok to stay here in Malaysia for a while, but it’s still a strange feeling to know that we can’t go back home because it’s not really safe to yet.

Many flights have been cancelled already

The government has been really careful over the last week. Schools are being shut down for an extra week after the holiday and non-essential businesses are closed until February 8th. There’s even been a hotline set up where people can report businesses that are trying to get their workers back to work early. It hasn’t stopped several schools from trying to get teachers to come back early to sit in empty classrooms, in the name of “getting their dollar’s worth” out of us. They don’t want us feeling like we have extra holidays…

I’m fairly concerned about the emptying grocery stores. Fresh vegetables and fruit are in short supply.

All of this is leading to some panic, of course. There are a lot of rumours going around and quite a bit of misinformation. People are abandoning their pets and freaking out on other expats in the Wechat groups too. I’ve seen name calling and full on melt downs. People are scared and they want other people to be scared too so that they don’t feel so alone.

Of course, some people are creating memes in their spare time, which I think is a lot more productive than going over worst case scenarios in your head.

I’ve been trying very hard to stay calm. I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a teenager and one of the best ways I know how to cope is to surround myself with positive people. I choose my friends carefully. But… I also feel like I have a role to play as an expat community leader in Suzhou. I am either the owner or administrator of multiple Wechat groups, and thousands of people use these groups to get information. I need to make sure that I’m there, providing good information and stopping bad information from spreading.

I’ve been trying to encourage people to stay calm, stay isolated and stay clean.

Still, I’m lucky. I’m facing this from the safety of a country that has been mostly unaffected by the virus. I have a reliable person taking care of my pets and the ability to stay abroad for a little while longer, although, to be honest I’d much rather be home, safe and sound with my furry family.

I just want to be home, curled up with Oliver

For now, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing: staying up to date with facts, washing my hands frequently, using hand sanitizer when necessary, and staying out of crowds. It’s all I can do.

Good advice!

Here are a couple more coronavirus memes to brighten a rather gloomy post:

There are lots of these ones floating around including one of a guy who cut a hole in his mask so that he could smoke out of it
During Chinese New year, these red envelopess are given out with money in them. Of course this year, with masks being in short supply…. This is a great gift!
Probably my favorite meme so far. Chinese people love to tell others to drink hot water…. For everything. Cold water is bad for you…. Hot water will cure fevers, ear infections, pneumonia and probably Coronovirus too

My next post will be about traveling to the jungle! Stay tuned! (I’m almost caught up!?)

CNY 2020 – Day 1 – Bonus Holidays

I’ve never been much of a fan of Shanghai. It’s polluted, crowded, expensive and it takes forever to get anywhere. Unfortunately, there is no airport in Suzhou, which means that any time we travel, we have to go to Shanghai.

We’ve been to the Bund only once.

Things have become better in the past couple of years, since we discovered some great restaurants and Shanghai’s vibrant expat scene.

Turkish appies in Found 158. We also very much enjoy the Vietnamese restaurant down there called Cyclo

The Hop Project was a game changer for us. They serve gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on sour dough bread. I’ve never seen this in Suzhou.

Now, we spend the night before our flights in this megacity, to enjoy food and atmospheres we don’t really get in Suzhou. It’s become a bit of a bonus vacation for us, something I never really thought was possible.

Spanish Tortilla. Love!!!

Meatballs

Chorizo soaked in red wine

Fantastic sangria

Last night we had an especially cool experience at our favorite Tapas bar in China, Tres Perros. From its music to its clientele, Tres Perros takes me back to Spain. The food and drinks are on point and the atmosphere of the bar is just like we experienced last year as we traveled around Europe.

Their Churros and flan are decadent

Even some of the Chinese staff speak Spanish and they all speak some English. Last night, while we were enjoying our dinner, one of the waiters came by and explained that he had a friend who had been in an accident and who had lost his leg. He asked if we could help him out at all. Before I knew it, everyone over at the table next to us was ordering him food, drinks and just having laughs with him. They were Spanish expats and it was a wonderful thing to see. They didn’t pity the disabled man. They just treated him like he belonged there and that he was welcomed there. It was a beautiful reminder that there are amazing people in the world.

They were a very fun crowd.

Shanghai has won me over. It took a while but I’m glad we’re friends now. After all… Who doesn’t want bonus vacation?

Volunteering in China

We’ve been back from Europe now for over 2 months. We’ve been keeping busy, as always, but the last few months have seen some new activities and events added to our lives.

Warning: this post has a lot of cute animals in it! Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

I had a weird little lightbulb moment near the beginning of March, when I realized I might be able to combine 2 very important aspects of my life to create something good.

That’s how my weightloss challenge was born.

I pitched the idea to a few friends who quickly jumped on board. I expected maybe 20 people to get involved

In the end, we had 136 contestants in about 15 different cities

Businesses started contacting me as well to sponsor the event. I was able to collect nearly 400 prizes ranging from vouchers to wine to free meals!!

The idea was simple. Contestants paid 100rmb ($20 Canadian) to enter the challenge. I would spend two months leading a positive and encouraging group. We’d donate any money raised to a couple of animal shelters.

The idea quickly grew with the addition of all the extra prizes. I realized I could motivate people throughout the month by setting up mini challenges to keep contestants active.

Of course, all of this ended up being a whole lot of work for me. Every day, I get between 25 and 50 challenges to enter into my giant Excel sheet. On Tuesdays, contestants weigh in, so we can stay accountable to our goals, and then on Wednesdays, I draw names for mini prizes based on whatever goals I set for the week.

Some of my own challenge logs. I participated too!!

I’ve been excelling in the steps challenge. I find going to the gym to be much harder to fit into my schedule, but I’ve been trying to walk everywhere

When I am at the gym, I’ve been obsessed with the stair machine. It’s difficult and I’ve been getting stronger and stronger as I climb flight after flight

We also held a “Dogathon” to raise money forvthe shelters. There were 2 main cities involved in the Charity Challenge, so contestants in each city planned a giant walk for dogs and their owners. Similar to the Charity challenge itself, participants paid a small fee to join in, and all proceeds went to the animals.

Glory Goh, a teacher here in Suzhou, did most of the planning for the dogathon. She did an incredible job.

I got several of my students to come down and help with raffles and games

We had more than 100 people join in and we’ll definitely be doing it again next year!!

Some of the dogs who joined in. Sheila, the sheep dog, is one of my favorite dogs in Suzhou! She was adopted by Glory; the main planner of the dogathon

With the success of the challenge and the dogathon, I decided to take things one step further, and to begin organizing volunteer trips to the SAPA shelter, which is home to more than 1000 dogs and cats.

The flyer I made to get people involved in the trip. In total we had 16 people come with us that day, including 4 students.

The trip was incredible. The SAPA is a noisy, smelly and magical place. The animals there are quite well cared for and mostly very friendly. You get the feeling while you’re there, that you are the best thing that has happened to those dogs all week. And that’s a nice feeling.

The cats were quite pleased too!

We had a very talented photographer join us on that first trip, and he did such an incredible job of capturing the beauty and sadness of that shelter.

This beautiful mastiff easily weighs 40kgs (80+ pounds). She’s enormous and will never find a home in China because she’s an illegal breed. Her home will be the shelter until someone can adopt her from abroad. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

Most of the dogs are mixed breeds. They are mostly friendly but some are quite shy. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev.

1000 dogs is not something I can really explain. It’s something you have to see, hear and smell to properly understand. Photo Courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

Most of the dogs are in large cages with 20 or so other dogs. Some of them are kept separate though, due to surgeries or aggression. Some dogs were badly abused or used for fighting. Those dogs crush my heart with sadness. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

There are very few puppies at the shelter, surprisingly enough. They’re clearly doing something right. My guess is that they have a vet doing spaying a neutering. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Bakhchev

Everyone there left a part of their hearts behind. There were 2 animals that really stood out to me. One was a small male dog with a scar around his snout. He likely had his mouth wired shut by an abuser. He is the sweetest little dog but SO afraid of people. It took me 20 minutes of sitting there with him before he finally had the bravery to come over to me. He melted into my lap as soon as I touched him. It was like he had been waiting forever for a bit of affection.

Some dogs never really come around. They just stare at you sadly while you clean their cage. I make sure to talk to them nicely while I mop, but they run away as soon as I get too close

I dubbed my little black sweetheart “Wiggle Bum” because of the way he wiggled back and forth for 20 minutes trying to decide whether or not to come see me. You can see him in the video below. It’s not the best video, but it gives you an idea of what the shelter is like. He was also much less scared when I was there the second time. I wonder if he remembered me and remembered that I was kind to him.

The other animal that I really fell for was a beautiful, blind ginger cat. He was SO affectionate and so darn sweet. My friend Kim spent most of her time at SAPA cuddled up with him. I made sure to get lots of pictures of him and later that night, I made a flyer to try and find him an adopter, or at least to raise funds to get him healthy.

I called him Oliver, after Oliver & Company (the Disney movie)

No one was able to foster him, but a lot of people donated, so Dave and I had him moved from the shelter to our vet, where he was quarantined for a week and treated for mites, fleas, ear fungus, a sinus infection and a few other little problems.

Oliver at the vet. He looked pretty happy to be on vacation from the noisy shelter

Now, he’s staying with us and learning how to be a good house cat. He’s sweet as ever and becoming so incredibly confident!

We found out later than he was born at SAPA. His mother arrived there very malnourished and pregnant. She and Oliver’s brother both died within a year at SAPA. Oliver survived for 2.5 years!!

One of his eyes had to be removed a while back. His remaining eye doesn’t have an outer eyelid. He will need ointment for the rest of his life but is mostly fine

I spend a lot of time with him … Just watching him navigate around. He’s such an adventurous little spirit and he never seems to run out of affection to give. He’s absolutely wonderful

Since my first trip to the shelter, I’ve organized a group that people can join if they want to volunteer but don’t really know what to do or where to go. I organize buses to and from the SAPA and bring up to 25 people at a time. I’m going tomorrow again and I can’t wait!!

The group of volunteers that came down to SAPA with me on Thursday this week. It’s a holiday here in Suzhou, so I decided to make good use of the time!

Next week, the Charity challenge ends. In total, we’ve raised more than 40,000rmb ($8000 Canadian) and lost more than 225kgs (about 500 pounds) in weight!!! I’d call that a success!!!!

The challenge is nearly over, but the mission will continue!!!

If you’re reading this and wondering how you can help, drop me a line in the comments section!

Evgeny Bakhchev, our talented photographer, also put together a beautiful video about our visit, with the help of his lovely wife, Daria. Enjoy!!

Day 7: Crowds

Working in China can mean a lot of great things. The number 1 perk of living abroad is the amount of traveling Dave and I can do. With 3 months off annually, we’ve seen at least 4 countries per year for the last 5 years. It’s been a pretty amazing ride.

Last spring festival was spent in Indonesia. One of the most incredible trips of my life!

Of course, living in China also has its downsides. I work every day of the week to keep up with my insane courseload. I work on average 60-70 hours per week, often finishing my grading at midnight. I also work most weekends, preparing for Monday’s classes. Please believe me when I say I work very, very hard for these holidays!

My stack of grading right before the holiday. It took me 3 days but I was suppose to have it done in 2…

Of course, living in China also means constantly being surrounded by people. Even China’s small cities have 2 million people, and Suzhou has 8 million. By the time our holidays arrive, I’m so tired of crowds that I just want to get away from every human other than Dave.

I don’t mind this guy…. But I need a break from everyone else haha!!

So far, Spain has been an amazing break from the hoards of people we’re used to. Even in Madrid, we were able to choose activities that kept us away from the masses.

In China I would have waited ages and still never have gotten this shot without people in it

But today, in Toledo, we were reminded why we have been choosing quieter activities for the last week. Toledo was a nuthouse!

It was like this everywhere we turned

Toledo is less than an hour from Madrid, so it’s an easy getaway from the capital. The town is cute but MUCH more geared towards tourists than either Avila or Segovia. Both of the smaller towns seemed to have a local life of their own, whereas Toledo seems to just exist for tourism.

Everywhere you go in Toledo, these swords are being sold. They range from 6€ to 400€, depending on the size and details…. At one point, I waited nearly 10 minutes to pay for 4 post cards, as the sales person tried convincing a young guy to drop nearly $500 Canadian on a decorative toy….

We tried to enjoy ourselves in spite of the masses, but when we walked into the Cathedral to hear a Chinese kid scream “whaaaaa!!!!”, I knew our day was circling the drain.

I should add that the child was not shouting in awe. He was just shouting. Kids in China are basically allowed to be as loud as they want to be… That doesn’t change when they are visiting holy places or are in areas where screaming is clearly not appropriate

By 1pm we started getting grumpy with each other, so we decided to hop in the car and get out of the city.

Toledo has a great free parking area just outside of the walls. They’ve built a lot of escalators too so that tourists don’t need to climb all the way back up. On the left, the escalators are going down, and out of the city. On the right, tourists are heading into Toledo. I’m glad we left when we did

We didn’t see anything too spectacular, but we enjoyed the ride, the quiet and the fresh air. Today, it was warm enough to have the windows rolled down!

Spain’ Southern Countryside

Tomorrow we head to Barcelona!